As Trump Tours Middle East, Islam Cultivates Hunterdon Roots

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Yaser ElMenshawy speaking at the groundbreaking of the Islamic Center of Hunterdon County last year. Credits: Curtis Leeds / TAPinto Flemington-Raritan file photo
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RARITAN TWP. – As President Trump continues his tour of the Middle East after speaking about Islam in Saudi Arabia yesterday, many Americans realize they know only a little about the religion.

Many understand that the upcoming Ramadan holiday is an important period for Muslims, but don’t have much knowledge beyond that. According to Pew Research, practices and philosophies of Muslims are some of the least known and most misunderstood in this country.

In Hunterdon, that is changing.

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A groundbreaking for the Islamic Center of Hunterdon was held last September, and Yaser ElMenshawy - its acting Imam - hopes the new mosque will be complete in the next two to three years.

The mosque will be built at the corner of Route 12 and Autumn Leaf Drive here. Because of the open nature of this mosque, there will be many opportunities for the public to learn about Islam and separate fact from fiction.

The way ElMenshawy sees it, there is one primary, most important belief in Islam.

“I bear witness that there is no deity but God,” he said. “If you believe that, then you’re always going to take God into account.”

“You have to adhere to his laws,” he said. “So we believe God exists and he existed before everything and he created the heavens and the earth.”

Muslims believe in the absolute acceptance of God and his laws, and that permeates all of the teachings of Islam. Because the basics of the faith are so simple, there is no difficulty in determining whether a person is a true follower of Islam.

It is as with Christianity. If a person is behaving counter to the teachings of Jesus but claims to be a Christian, someone might say, “He’s not acting like a Christian.” It’s the same with Islam, ElMenshawy explains.

Islam is a bit different from other religions in how mosques are organized, ElMenshawy said. Each group is able to make decisions about how they will operate in terms of membership and how open they will be to allowing people outside of the faith to attend services and functions. At the Islamic Center of Hunterdon, there will be no membership requirements, and attendance at functions is open to all as long as those attending show the proper respect and dress appropriately.

Islam is one of the three major Abrahamic religions, along with Judaism and Christianity. There are a few others as well, such as Baha’i and Rastafarian. However, Islam has a few key differences from the Christian and Jewish traditions, not the least of which is the time and energy that must be put into its practice.

Islam is based on the teachings of the Qur’an, which Muslims believe is the literal word of God. “It wasn’t someone else writing it down. We believe every word is from God and he wrote it,” ElMenshawy said. Contained in the Qur’an and the Sayings of the Prophet are the rules that govern Muslims. Everything required must come from those sources.

“Decisions about right and wrong are written as a legal document. If there is a question, the default is that it’s permissible,” say ElMenshawy, so to determine that something is impermissible, there must be text in one of those two resources that is specific to the issue. “If there is nothing denying it, then it is permissible. There is only one thing that is unforgivable in Islam, and that’s to deny God or embrace polytheism. However, if you embrace God as the only deity before death, you are forgiven.”

To be a Muslim, one must accept the law of the texts. Far stricter than most other denominations in its requirement for adherence, there is little variation in interpretation.

“The Prophet (Mohammed) was inspired so that everything he said and did is consistent with God’s law,” said ElMenshawy. “So when God gives a command, the people at the time didn’t ask the prophet why. He didn’t have to explain. If the rule came, it was followed. It was God’s decision. There was no debate.”

The rules are absolute. They state that even if you claim to be a Muslim, if you go out drinking with a friend who is female, you are not Muslim.

It’s one of the ways Muslims believe that the terrorists of 9/11 were not Muslims.

“Three of them were in a strip club drinking just before the attack,” ElMenshawy said. “Another one was a bartender. A Muslim would never do those things.”

Besides, ElMenshawy said, “While there is a phrase in the Qur’an about ‘smite them where you see them’ with regard to infidels, it is specific. This passage, if you read the whole thing, is about the Meccan Pagans who started the war. If you are attacked, it can tell you how to respond and it encourages you to defend yourself. But the terrorists of ISIS are not Muslim. Vigilantism is unacceptable in Islam.”

Included in the rules of the Qur’an are the style of dress and the importance of marriage. Americans are sometimes irked by the seeming misogyny of the faith, which requires women to cover themselves; only face, hands, and feet can show. As ElMenshawy explains it, marriage is one of the most important aspects of Muslim life, and protecting that institution is what is behind some of its seemingly sexist rules.

“This is what we believe is the wisdom behind it,” ElMenshawy said. “It is important in Islam is to protect the family, and one of the ways you do that is to keep people from having extramarital relationships. So you are encouraged to get married and then all your emotional attention should be directed to your spouse. You shouldn’t be concerned with other people. So Islam puts these barriers in the way.

“Men and women shouldn’t be alone together, men should lower their gaze, we don’t shake hands, and women wear hijabs,” he said, referring to the clothing that covers all but face, hands, and feet.

“Men and women don’t develop close friendships with people of the opposite sex outside the family,” ElMenshawy explained. “It’s just not done. Men cannot have a physical relationship unless they get married. It’s a strong inducement for getting married.

“Once married, because they can’t interact with anyone else, it keeps men at home. It’s to cut off all the pathways to having relationships outside of marriage. Men respond much more to what they see than women.”

There is also a dress requirement for men; they must be covered between navel and knee, including in front of other men.

Being a Muslim is a weighty responsibility. A great deal of time is spent in the mosque, prayer is required five times a day every day, and once a year there is Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting and prayer.

Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam: Faith, Prayer, Charity, Fasting, and Pilgrimage to Mecca. During Ramadan, Muslims are focused on their faith. The point of the month, ElMenshawy said, is Taqwa, which is piety and a healthy respect for God. This year, Ramadan begins May 27 and ends June 25.

“A typical day during Ramadan requires us to rise by about 3:30 a.m. to have a bit of food before dawn, drink something, then pray the dawn prayer which ends at sunrise,” ElMenshawy said. “Then at sundown, which is about 8:30, you eat, and then around 10 p.m., you return to the mosque. There is a night prayer, then Taraweeh, which is the prayer after night prayer, and lasts for about an hour, though it can take longer. Then you go home, get a few hours of sleep, and it starts again.”

“The biggest issue with Ramadan is not the not eating or not drinking,” ElMenshawy joked. “It’s the not sleeping!”

There are exceptions made for the infirm, ill, very young, or those who are otherwise unable to follow the strict regimen. “If you are unable to do it, then you do not. But it must be legitimate,” ElMenshawy said.

ElMenshawy was born in Egypt and came to the United States in 1970. He is married and has three children. Though he is the acting Imam, he shares sermon duties with others and is looking forward to finding a permanent Imam when the center is complete.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify Islamic beliefs.

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